'West Side Story' remains effective Review: The musical retelling of "Romeo and Juliet" at the Lyric is a classic in its own right. @

December 05, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The Sharks and the Jets are rumbling again. The teen-age gangs in the 1957 landmark musical, "West Side Story," at first seem tame by today's standards. But by the time the curtain comes down on the faithful revival at the Lyric Opera House, you'll be moved all over again by the grim outcome of their rivalry.

One of the joys of this touring production is re-visiting Jerome Robbins' stunning direction and choreography, reproduced here by Alan Johnson. From the opening moments when we see the Anglo Jets propelled across the stage in a tight, nearly airborne wedge, or engaging in fluidly danced combat with the Puerto Rican Sharks, we are reminded of the majesty of Robbins' work, which has justifiably earned these dances a place in the vTC repertory of the New York City Ballet.

And yet, these Jets feel too innocent to be threatening. Indeed, led by Christian Borle's curly haired Riff, they look more like choirboys than juvenile delinquents. Even the graffiti that decorates designer Campbell Baird's set seems closer to pop art than the defiant statements of angry youth.

But Robbins and his collaborators -- librettist Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim -- based "West Side Story" on one of the most compelling sources in dramatic literature, Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." And, once the story of Maria and Tony's forbidden romance gets going, the production gains the requisite hint of danger.

This is partly because of Sharen Camille's genuinely affecting portrayal of Maria. Unlike the presumably tough gang members, Maria is supposed to be an innocent, and Camille convincingly conveys her character's purity and youth. Next to the Puerto Rican female chorus, Camille's Maria looks like a sweet, little girl. However, her soaring soprano -- the production's best voice -- imbues the lush Bernstein melodies of "One Hand, One Heart" and "I Have a Love" with the newfound maturity of love.

Jeremy Koch's Tony is competent, if less inspired. But as Anita, Natascia A. Diaz delivers a spirited performance reminiscent of the actress who created the role, Chita Rivera.

As the rival gang leaders, Kevin Albert's Bernardo comes closest to projecting a sense of menace; Borle, though a strong singer, sacrifices some of Riff's intensity due to an unruly -- and un-period -- haircut that has him constantly flicking his locks out of his eyes.

Urban streets may be a lot meaner in 1996 than they were in 1957, with crack and automatic weapons making the musical's references to "tea" and zip guns sound like something out of a comic strip. But the escalation of racial hatred and senseless bloodshed makes this musicalization of Shakespeare's cautionary tale more disturbing, not less.

Indeed, this seems to be the season of "Romeo and Juliet." First, Australian director Baz Luhrmann updated the story and moved the setting to California in a punk film interpretation. And, late next month, Center Stage will unveil an interpretation of its own.

"Romeo and Juliet" is not only one of Shakespeare's best known tragedies, it's also one of his most malleable, and, sadly, most timeless. Nearly 40 years since its debut, "West Side Story" displays a timelessness of its own, which this production palpably reinforces.

'West Side Story'

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8 p.m. tonight through Saturday, 7: 30 p.m. Sunday, matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Through Sunday

Tickets: $19-$55

Call: (410) 292-2712

Pub Date: 12/05/96

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